"The Greatest Commandments"
Sermon for 14 Feb. 1999
Text: Matthew 22:23-40
Our text for today comes from Jesus’ controversies with the Sadducees and the Pharisees, two of the religious parties influential in Jesus Day. Representatives of the Sadducees had come with a question, actually a man-made puzzle about marriage designed to demonstrate the folly of belief in the afterlife. It was a great, man-made conundrum. . .a kind of Clarence Darrow let’s make those who believe in the Bible look like idiots. Darrow was a lawyer in the infamous Scopes trial made into a evolutionist propaganda piece film, "Inherit the Wind." And that is about as close to the facts that the film ever approaches. In history, Darrow was quite unlike his silver screen counterpart and those who opposed Darwinist evolution being taught in school actually won the case. The film, however, has had a tremendous influence in our culture as we, as Christians, should be aware of the distortion promote by this fictional drama because it has acquired the force of reality in spite of never happening. For our purposes, we need to compare the Sadducees with those who considered themselves too intelligent to fall for anything so silly as scripture, and the truth of resurrection. Now these intelligent folk, wise in their own estimate, were more than condescending towards those simple, religious folk who believed in resurrection life—especially at the coming of the Christ. They were at loggerheads with the Pharisaic party, who could hardly be dismissed as simple.
What was it about them that led them to put this question to Jesus? Well, there were probably many motivations, but let’s focus today on one: vicious curiosity. Their curiosity was vicious because it masked their real state. They knew well enough what they believed and rather than to come out and flatly say, "We reject the existence of angels and even the resurrection of the dead," they spun out this fantastic tale about death and re-marriage unto the seventh brother. And even if people were resurrected, they would merely come back to an existence identical to this one. Whose wife will the woman be who married all seven brothers? They could have simply asked if marriage pertains to the afterlife. Furthermore, they could have inquired as to whether there even was an afterlife. But because the puzzle was meant to be a stumbling block to others, and lack intellectual sincerity—it was evidence of vicious curiosity. A show of curiosity, a display of contempt aimed at making someone else appear foolish.
Jesus’ rebuke was as sharp as the crack of a whip: "You are in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God." (v.29) If they had known the scriptures, they would have known that at the resurrection marriage ceases to be the modality in which people relate to each other—rather, they will relate as the angels do. They would have known that the existence we are raised to can differ greatly from the one we presently know—like the differences between the existence of man pre- and post-flood. The resurrected will have a direct relationship with God and one another. Everyone will be part of the family of God and the importance of gender will be reduced to that of a shaping force which prevailed during our sojourn here in this existence. Jill Briscoe touches on this sweetly when she refers to a pastor’s wife as "a disciple of Jesus Christ disguised in a woman’s body." Scripture alludes to us, male and female, as all "sons of God" by faith in Jesus Christ. The woman married to seven husbands will love them all equally and without need to any form of primacy in the life to come! And, so, too, a remarried man.
As to the second point, the resurrection of the dead, which the Sadducees, if they believed in at all, was limited to the resurrection day, Jesus declares it to be a present and continuing reality, an interpretation sustained by the meaning of the very name of God, "I AM." The great, living God, I AM, is the God of the living, not of the dead. The God of Abraham, Issac and Jacob, I AM. (Exodus 3:6)
Now the impact of Jesus’ rebuke is described for us two ways: first, by the reaction of the crowd. . . "they were astonished at His teaching." Now, frankly, they shouldn’t have been quite so astonished if the plain meaning of scripture had been being preached to them. But the Sadducees, possessed as they were of a naturalistic world view (only sensory reality—no angels, no transcendent, resurrection life now, this reality is the only reality etc.), edited scripture to fit and to confirm their world view. Secondly, we read that the Sadducees were silenced. (v.34) Luke records that some of the Pharisees praised Jesus for refuting the Sadducees (Luke 20:39) at this time.